A welcome prohibition on fracking

Government must now make clear its commitment to boosting energy efficiency and renewable energy sources

 

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten’s decision to support a prohibition on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for shale gas has been warmly welcomed by environmental groups as “the right thing to do to protect the health and well-being of communities around Ireland.” It follows publication by the Environmental Protection Agency of a series of 11 related reports from the Joint Research Programme on Environmental Impacts of Unconventional Gas Exploration & Extraction.

Public concern about this unconventional method of extracting fossil fuels generally focuses on health, water resources, induced seismic activity, and greenhouse gas emissions as well as potential changes to the character of the environment brought about by fracking operations.

Although the research programme concluded that such operations could proceed on the island of Ireland, “while protecting the environment and human health”, it cautioned that data and experience “do not permit a reliable assessment” of their consequences in three main areas.

Firstly, groundwater aquifers “could be polluted” as a result of the failure of fracking wells. Secondly, there could be a risk of gas “migrating” into aquifers depending on how close they are to the wells. And thirdly, there could be a long-term risk of methane emissions to the atmosphere due to failure to seal wells properly after fracking operations cease.

These three imponderables, none of which is capable of easy resolution, were enough to convince Mr Naughten that there should be a presumption against fracking, although one suspects that his own instinct was to oppose it even before the research was published.

The Minister now needs to make it absolutely clear that the priority for the future must be to boost energy efficiency and renewable energy sources so that Ireland can make a meaningful contribution to international efforts to mitigate climate change – an aspect of the fracking debate that the EPA’s research programme largely ignored, unfortunately.

With 2016 likely to be the hottest year since records began, we have no time to lose in weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.